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2017-04-20 17:27
By Jun Ji-hye

An age-old debate over the nation’s enemy has restarted after conservative presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min asked liberal candidate Moon Jae-in a question: “Do you think North Korea is our ‘main enemy’?” during a nationally televised debate, Wednesday.

Moon of the Democratic Party of Korea refused to give a straight answer, saying a president is not the person to give such a definition but the person who needs to resolve inter-Korean issues.

Yoo of the Bareun Party shot back. “The Defense White Paper, an official government document, stipulates that North Korea is the main enemy. Therefore it doesn’t make any sense that the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, cannot say so,” he said.

Moon rebutted: “There are things that need to be done by the Ministry of National Defense, and things that need to be handled by the president.”

The debate between the two candidates and their aides continued Thursday and was also joined by other candidates.

But it seems to be an anachronistic and unnecessary quarrel for two reasons.

First, Yoo’s argument contained false information as the defense ministry deleted the expression the “main enemy” from the 2004 Defense White Paper.

Since then, the ministry has used expressions such as “direct military threats,” “existing threats” and “serious threats” when referring to the North in the biennially published papers.

In 2010, the ministry under the conservative Lee Myung-bak government began to call the “North Korean regime and its military” an enemy, not the main enemy, in what was seen as an effort to separate the North Korean people from their regime. This expression continued until the most recent 2016 paper was published.

Secondly, Yoo overlooked several rational reasons for the previous governments’ decision not to use the phrase “main enemy” any more.

Calling the North the main enemy could mean there would be other enemies. This caused concerns over possible diplomatic friction with neighboring countries, including China, the North’s traditional ally but the South’s No. 1 trading partner.

Countries, including the United States, China and Russia, also have not used the expression of main enemy in their publications for the same reason.


The point of view on the North could also be flexible between ministries as the isolated state is an enemy from the military's viewpoint, but a potential conversation partner for the unification ministry. For its part, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to carry out a carrot-and-stick policy in dealing with the North.

The president is the top decision maker who needs to issue a timely order to such ministries in accordance with national interests. If they define the North as the main enemy of the state, this will leave the ministries stranded.

Conservative former Presidents Lee and Park Geun-hye did not call the North the main enemy, either. But some hard-core conservative forces still push liberals into a corner calling them “North Korean sympathizers” if they do not support calling Pyongyang the main enemy, especially when elections loom.  

It is time to stop this habit and show more flexibility in viewing the North.  

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute said, “Mentioning the concept of the main enemy is just an anachronism from the Cold War era. North Korea has a double meaning to the South as it is our enemy but also the same people whom we need to be united with.”

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